Bookworm: ‘The Temporary Gentleman’

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When I moved back to Ireland in late 2015, I spent three months in the town of my youth – Limerick. It had been almost twenty years since I had lived there. I had visited for a week here and there, while living in Amsterdam or Dublin. The Famiglia Murphy were still largely in residence in the town. So I’d make the trek home a few times every year.

This three month spell was the most extended period of time I had spent there, since I had fled for the city decades earlier.

The trouble with arriving home after such a protracted period away is that any social networks (of friends of the actual, physical kind, as opposed to the online kind) have dissolved. No hard feelings or anything, but a distinct lack of local phone numbers to call and say ‘Fancy a beer in town later?’

Well valiant efforts were made to resolve this situation. I joined a book club. Whereby –  on a monthly basis – a book would be selected by the group and discussed once it had been read. The club would meet in the tastefully appointed Red Hen bar on Patrick Street on a pre-selected Wednesday.

My reasoning was simple – I loved books and I needed new friends. Why not try to combine the two. I sent an email to join and was informed of the time and date of the next meeting, as well as the title of the book.

I scuttled over to O’Mahony’s bookshop and bought the chosen title – ‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry.

I never read it. I discovered that I was employable, and would be relocating to Dublin. I no longer had time for fripperies such as Limerick book clubs. There were more pressing matters on my mind – the main one being sourcing a place of residence (the less said about how that initially turned out the better – Flatenemy was a learning opportunity – not a deranged psychopath).

Eighteen months later, as I slowly work my way through my bookshelf of doom, trying to reduce the ‘to read’ list; I have finally finished this book.

It’s a heart-breaking look at a marriage.

It is 1957. Jack McNulty is working as a United Nations observer in the newly independent Ghana. He is in late middle age and is feverishly writing a diary about his life and marriage to Mai Kirwan.

Born at the turn of the century in Sligo in the west of Ireland, Jack has had a storied life. At university in Galway, in the newly independent Irish Free State he meets the very modern Mai and falls for her. After some initial setbacks – the main ones being Mai moving temporarily to teach in England, and her family’s disapproval of him – they get married and start their married life.

Upon the wedding  Mai surrenders her teaching career to support her husband – as women were expected to do  – as he joins the British Merchant Navy. They are based in Africa.

A few years later they settle back in Ireland they start a family and have two daughters.

A well meaning but unreliable sort Jack starts borrowing money to keep Mai in the style to which his Irish civil service salary cannot afford. After financial catastrophe they settle back in his home village in Sligo.

That’s when the drinking starts..

Despite their intense love for each other, both feel thwarted and unfulfilled and irrelevant, and take solace and revenge in the bottle. It is a scorched earth marriage of bitterness, anger, recriminations. And an abiding love for each other.

After a family tragedy, when Mai needs Jack’s support most, the Great Emergency in Europe breaks out (this was neutral Ireland’s euphemistic term for World War 2). Jack enlists in the British Army for the duration of the war.

It’s an intensely sad book detailing a complicated relationship between troubled people, at a time when there was no escape from the monstrous rules that society imposed on people. There is a palpable sense of frustration and despair throughout the book.

The title ‘The Temporary Gentleman’ refers to the fleeting status given to soldiers and diplomats during war and power transition.

It’s part of a wider series of a series of books about various members of the McNulty family over the generations (other in the series include ‘The Secret Scripture’ and ‘Days Without End’.

I’ll be reading these when my bookshelf of doom has been addressed.

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ is a joy of a book.

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